Illegal drugs trade goes digital for pandemic

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) -Like supermarkets, restaurants and purveyors of sourdough bread, the illegal drugs trade went digital to serve its customers during lockdown, and could stay that way when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Europe’s drugs agency said on Wednesday.

“The pandemic is pushing drug criminals online, reinforcing a trend,” said the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson during the online launch of the 2021 drugs report put together by the Lisbon-based agency EMCDDA.

“Drug dealers are moving from the streets onto social media, taking orders via encrypted messaging services, sending drugs to customers via home delivering services.”

The pandemic has forced changes to every level of the drugs trade, from wholesale traffickers and smugglers to neighborhood dealers.

With international travel disrupted and borders shut, smugglers have been relying more on shipping containers and less on human couriers, the report said. The trade proved resilient, with data showing no decline in the amount of cocaine available, while more people were growing cannabis at home.

“The drug market continues to adjust to COVID-19 disruption, as drug traffickers adapt to travel restrictions and border closures,” it said.

“Although street-based retail drug markets were disrupted during the early lockdowns, and some localized shortages reported, drug sellers and buyers adapted by increasing their use of encrypted messaging services, social media apps, online sources and mail and home delivery services.”

Alexis Goosdeel, EMCDDA’s director, said there would be new risks from what the report called “the further digitalization of drug markets”. The shift to online transactions made it easier for drug dealers to recruit young people, and to make the push out of big cities into rural areas.

Mental health problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic could push more people to misuse drugs, and the financial impact of the crisis could push them to use “more toxic, more dangerous and potentially more lethal substances,” Goosdeel said.

“We are just in front of a perfect storm,” Goosdeel said. “The drug market is more resilient than ever and is digitally-enabled.”

(Reporting by Catarina DemonyEditing by Victoria Waldersee and Peter Graff)

Delta coronavirus variant believed to have 60% transmission advantage: UK epidemiologist

LONDON (Reuters) – The Delta coronavirus variant of concern, first identified in India, is believed to be 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant which was previously dominant in Britain, a prominent UK epidemiologist said on Wednesday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that England’s full reopening from COVID-19 lockdown, penciled in for June 21, could be pushed back due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London told reporters that estimates of Delta’s transmission edge over Alpha had narrowed, and “we think 60% is probably the best estimate”.

Ferguson said that modelling suggested any third wave of infections could rival Britain’s second wave in the winter – which was fueled by the Alpha variant first identified in Kent, south east England.

But it was unclear how any spike in hospitalizations would translate into a rise in deaths, as more detail was needed on how well the vaccine protects against serious illness from Delta.

“It’s well within possibility that we could see another third wave at least comparable in terms of hospitalizations,” he said.

“I think deaths probably would be lower, the vaccines are having a highly protective effect… still it could be quite worrying. But there is a lot of uncertainty.”

Britain has seen over 127,000 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test, but has given more than three-quarters of adults a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Public Health England has shown that the Delta variant reduces the effectiveness of Pfizer and AstraZeneca shots among those who have only received one shot, though protection is higher for those who have received both doses.

Ferguson said that up to a quarter of the Delta variant’s transmissibility edge over Alpha might come from its immune escape from vaccines, saying it was “a contribution but not an overwhelming contribution” to its advantage.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Sarah Young and James Davey)

Analysis-India’s vaccine inequity worsens as countryside languishes

By Krishna N. Das, Abhirup Roy and Rajendra Jadhav

NEW DELHI/SATARA, India (Reuters) – Urban Indians are getting COVID-19 shots much faster than the hundreds of millions of people living in the countryside, government data shows, reflecting rising inequity in the nation’s immunization drive.

In 114 of India’s least developed districts – collectively home to about 176 million people – authorities have administered just 23 million doses in total.

That’s the same number of doses as have been administered across nine major cities — New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Thane and Nagpur — which combined have half the population.

The disparity was even stronger last month, after the government allowed private sales of vaccines for adults aged under 45 years, an offer which favored residents of cities with larger private hospital networks. For the first four weeks of May, those nine cities gave 16% more doses than the combined rural districts, data from the government’s Co-WIN vaccination portal shows.

“My friends from the city were vaccinated at private hospitals,” said Atul Pawar, a 38-year-old farmer from Satara, a rural western district of Maharashtra, India’s wealthiest state. “I am ready to pay, but doses are not available and district borders are sealed because of the lockdown.”

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare did not respond to a request for comment.

India has administered more than 222 million doses since starting its campaign in mid-January – only China and the United States have administered more – but it has given the required two doses to less than 5% of its 950 million adults.

Rural India is home to more than two-thirds of the country’s 1.35 billion people. While urban areas account for a disproportionately large share of the confirmed COVID-19 cases, those concerned about the spread of the virus in the countryside say statistics undercount cases in villages, where testing is less comprehensive.

The health system in several regions in India collapsed in April and May as the country reported the world’s biggest jump in coronavirus infections, increasing pressure on the immunization program.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government offers vaccines to vulnerable people, healthcare workers and those aged over 45 for free. Since last month, individual states have also been expected to procure vaccines for younger adults, or to provide them commercially through the private sector.

Poorer states say this leaves their residents more vulnerable. The eastern state of Jharkhand, where nearly all districts are categorized as poor, this week urged Modi to give it free vaccines for all age groups.

In many states the doses for those under 45 are available mostly or entirely in urban areas. Some officials say this is intentional, as the infection spreads more easily in crowded cities.

“It’s because of high-positivity” in urban areas, said Bijay Kumar Mohapatra, health director of the eastern state of Odisha, explaining the state’s decision to prioritize cities.

Major international and domestic firms such as Microsoft, Pepsi, Amazon, Reliance Industries, Adani Group and Tata Motors have organized inoculations for their employees, in many cases in partnership with private hospitals. Most of these companies and the huge private hospitals that serve them are located in urban centers.

Vaccination rates in rural areas have also been depressed because of patchier internet access to use the complex online system for signing up for shots, and possibly because of greater hesitancy among villagers than among city dwellers.

“LUCRATIVE DEALS”

India’s Supreme Court criticized the government’s handling of the vaccination program this week and ordered it to provide a breakdown of shots given in rural and urban areas.

“Private hospitals are not equally spread out” across the country and “are often limited to bigger cities with large populations”, the top court said in its order dated May 31.

“As such, a larger quantity will be available in such cities, as opposed to the rural areas,” it said. Private hospitals may prefer to sell doses “for lucrative deals directly to private corporations who wish to vaccinate their employees”.

Dr. Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the risk of inequity was that parts of India would build up immunity disproportionately.

“It can leave the rural population relatively more vulnerable.”

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das, Abhirup Roy and Rajendra Jadhav; Additional reporting by Prasanta Kumar Dutta, Jatindra Dash, Sumit Khanna, Rupam Nair; Graphics by Tanvi Mehta; Editing by Peter Graff)

German officials hope COVID-19 third wave has crested

By Emma Thomasson and Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) -A third wave of the coronavirus pandemic seems to have peaked in Germany and a record number of vaccinations should help turn the tide, although it is too soon to sound the all-clear as hospitals remain overloaded, health officials said on Thursday.

“The figures must not only stagnate, they must go down,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference, adding that a sustainable fall was a prerequisite for the lockdown to ease.

“Two to three days is not a trend. It is a good signal but what is decisive is to make a trend out of it,” he said, adding nearly 1.1 million people were vaccinated on Wednesday, more than 1% of the population and more than on any other day so far.

Germany’s seven-day average of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people fell on Thursday for the third day in a row to 155 – its lowest level in two weeks, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed.

The incidence figure – a key metric used by the German government to determine when to tighten or ease lockdowns – hit 169 on Monday, but has fallen each day since then. The last time it was under 160 was on April 14, when the incidence was 153.

RKI President Lothar Wieler cautioned that the pandemic would not be over until it was under control around the world, noting that global cases had risen 24% in the last week.

LOCKDOWNS

New legislation enables the federal government to impose curfews from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in areas where cases exceed 100 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days. The rules also include stricter limits on private gatherings and shopping.

Schools will have to close and return to online lessons if cases reach 165 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days.

If the European Union’s watchdog approves COVID-19 vaccines for children, Germany will be able to vaccinate under 12-year-olds during the summer holidays at the latest, Spahn said.

The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 24,736 on Thursday – almost 5,000 fewer than those recorded a week ago – bringing Germany’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 3,357,268.

The total COVID-19 death toll rose by 264 to 82,544.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, Caroline Copley, editing by Kirsti Knolle and Gareth Jones)

India to allow COVID-19 vaccines for all adults as cases surge

By Neha Arora and Anuron Kumar Mitra

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India will let all citizens over 18 have COVID-19 vaccinations from May 1, the government said on Monday, as the health system creaked under the weight of record-high cases and the capital region of New Delhi ordered a lockdown.

Facing growing criticism over its handling of the second wave of the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration said vaccine manufacturers would have to supply 50% of doses to the federal government and the rest to state governments and the open market at a pre-declared price.

Daily COVID-19 cases in India jumped a record 273,810 on Monday, and deaths rose a record 1,619 to 178,769. Hospitals have a shortage of beds, oxygen and key medicines, and infections have passed 15 million, the world’s second highest total after the United States.

The New Delhi region ordered a six-day lockdown starting Monday night after its chief minister said the health system was unable to take more patients in big numbers.

“If a lockdown isn’t implemented now, the situation will go beyond control,” Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal told a virtual media briefing on Monday.

Criticism of Modi’s administration has increased as he continued to address large state election rallies and let Hindu devotees congregate for a festival.

Kejriwal had said on Sunday that fewer than 100 critical care beds were available in the city of New Delhi, which has a population of more than 20 million people, and social media were flooded with complaints.

New Delhi joined 13 other Indian states that have decided to impose restrictions, curfews or lockdowns in their cities, including the richest state of Maharashtra and Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where the industrial city of Ahmedabad is also grappling with a shortage of beds.

Hong Kong said late on Sunday that the Asian financial hub will suspend flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines from Tuesday for two weeks.

Britain has put India on a travel “red-list” and Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled a planned trip to India next week.

As of Monday, India had administered nearly 123.9 million vaccine doses – the most in the world after the United States and China, though it ranks much lower in per capita vaccination.

The current vaccination process is controlled by the federal government. Liberalizing it would augment vaccine production and availability, and attract new domestic and international vaccine manufacturers, the government said in its statement.

“It would also make pricing, procurement, eligibility and administration of vaccines open and flexible, allowing all stakeholders the flexibility to customise to local needs and dynamics,” it said.

(Reporting by Neha Arora in New Delhi, Anuron Kumar Mitra and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad and Aftab Ahmed in New Delhi; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Michael Perry, Nick Macfie and Timothy Heritage)

‘I’m so excited’ – England reopens with pints pulled, shopping sprees and hair cuts

By Carl Recine, Kate Holton and Sarah Young

BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – Crowds queued up outside shops, pubs started selling pints at midnight and hairdressers welcomed desperate customers on Monday as England started to reopen its economy after three months of lockdown.

After imposing the most onerous restrictions in Britain’s peacetime history, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the reopening was a “major step” towards freedom but urged people to behave responsibly as the coronavirus was still a threat.

Johnson, whose unruly hair style has become a trademark look, was one of thousands who flocked to hairdressers and barbers to have a hair cut on Monday, having waited since early January when the latest lockdown was introduced.

Some folk lined up at bars after midnight or in the morning to raise a pint with fellow revelers.

“It feels good to be back,” Matthew McGuinness, a 21-year-old student told Reuters in the large garden of Wetherspoon’s Fox on the Hill pub in south London. “We planned it last night to come here for a breakfast, get a drink.”

“I would not want to be working behind the bar here tonight. It’s gonna be ridiculous,” he said.

Getting people spending again is crucial for Britain’s recovery after official data showed that 2020 was the worst year for its economy in more than three centuries with a 9.8% decline in gross domestic product.

As the sun rose, dozens of people queued up outside Primark in English cities such as Birmingham and outside JD Sports on Oxford Street in London, undeterred by the unseasonably cold weather.

The John Lewis department store chain said glassware and gifts had been the most popular items as shoppers prepared to host friends and families once again. In the run up to the reopening, John Lewis had also seen a more than 200% jump in sales of dresses.

At the Thorpe Park adventure site near London, visitors ran to the rides as it reopened. Drinkers in pub gardens said they had worn their thermals to be able withstand the cold.

‘SO EXCITED’

In north London, Maggie Grieve reopened the Beaucatcher hairdresser salon to work through the long list of bookings.

“I’m so excited to see my clients: to see how they are and give them that feeling that they get from having had their hair done,” Maggie Grieve, who manages Beaucatcher hairdressers in north London, told Reuters. “Today is going to feel like every hairdresser’s birthday. The well-wishers have already come in: emails, texts, WhatsApps, even neighbors in the street wishing luck and joy. It feels great. Now can’t wait to get to the pub,” Grieve said.

Hundreds of thousands of businesses have been closed since early January when England entered a third lockdown to stem surging infections driven by the “Kent” variant of the virus. The UK has the fifth highest death toll in the world.

But a fast vaccination campaign that has delivered a first shot to well over half of adults has helped to cut deaths by more than 95% and cases by over 90% from the January peak, paving the way for a staggered reopening.

“I urge everyone to continue to behave responsibly and remember ‘hands, face, space and fresh air’ to suppress COVID as we push on with our vaccination program,” Johnson said.

His spokesman said the British leader had a haircut earlier on Monday but declined to give any further details.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are reopening at a different pace, determined by their governments. Non-essential stores, such as home and fashion chains, will reopen in Wales as well as England on Monday, although those in Scotland need to wait until April 26.

Pubs and restaurants will only be able to serve outdoors from Monday, with indoor service not allowed until May 17 at the earliest.

($1 = 0.7296 pounds)

(Additional reporting by Andrew Boyers in Warwick and Kate Holton and Elizabeth Piper in London; Writing by Paul Sandle, James Davey and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Jane Merriman and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Merkel backs tougher COVID lockdown in Germany

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel supports demands for a short, tough lockdown in Germany to curb the spread of the coronavirus as infection rates are too high, a German government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Germany is struggling to tackle a third wave of the pandemic and several regional leaders have called for a short, sharp lockdown while the country tries to vaccinate more people.

“Every call for a short, uniform lockdown is right,” deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters, adding Germany was seeing a growing number of intensive care patients.

“We need a stable incidence below 100,” she said, referring to the number of cases over seven days per 100,000 inhabitants. It is currently 110.1, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

She also said the government was looking at whether nationwide, rather than regional, measures were needed.

“The range of regulations does not help acceptance,” said Demmer. While some states have imposed night-time curfews over Easter, others are experimenting with some easing of restrictions.

Merkel pressed regional leaders on March 28 to step up efforts to curb rapidly rising coronavirus infections, adding a thinly veiled threat that she would otherwise have to consider what steps could be taken on a nationwide basis.

One option would be to amend the Infection Protection Act to stipulate what should happen under certain scenarios and which could enable the federal government to enforce a nationwide lockdown without getting approval of the 16 state premiers.

Demmer said the government was still looking into this option, but that no final decision had been taken yet.

Bild newspaper reported that conservative lawmakers were currently working on a draft law to give the federal government more powers to get the third wave under control.

The majority of Germany’s federal state premiers was against bringing forward talks scheduled for April 12 on what action to take.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 9,677 on Wednesday to more than 2.9 million, the Robert Koch Institute said. It has warned that the numbers may not yet show the full picture as not all cases were registered over Easter. Some 77,401 people have died.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Michael Nienaber; Writing Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Kirsti Knolle)

Too soon to say if Britons can take summer holiday abroad, says UK’s Johnson

By Kate Holton, Alistair Smout and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday it was too soon to say whether international summer holidays can go ahead this year, a remark suggesting a planned reopening of outbound travel could be pushed back beyond May 17.

Britons are among Europe’s highest spending tourists so the fortunes of the continent’s summer season and the travel industry, hit hard by restrictions imposed on travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will depend on when tourists can return to the beaches, cafes and taverns of southern Europe.

Britain plans to use a traffic-light risk system for countries once non-essential international travel resumes, but the government said it was too early to say which countries could be given the green light that would only require coronavirus tests before and after travel.

“Taking into account the latest situation with (coronavirus) variants and the evidence about the efficacy of vaccines against them, we will confirm in advance whether non-essential international travel can resume on 17 May, or whether we will need to wait longer before lifting the outbound travel restriction,” a government review said.

Johnson told a news conference he was hopeful that non-essential international travel would restart from May 17, but that he did not want to underestimate the growing number of COVID-19 cases elsewhere.

“Obviously we are hopeful that we can get going from May 17th, but I do not wish to give hostages to fortune or to underestimate the difficulties that we are seeing in some of the destination countries that people might want to go to,” he said.

British media suggested countries on the green list, requiring testing before and after travel, could include Portugal, Malta, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

Under Johnson’s original plan, international travel would not resume until May 17 at the earliest. Countries on the amber list would require self-isolation. Those on the red list would require quarantine.

Airlines such as easyJet, Ryanair and British Airways, plus holiday groups such as TUI, hope to avoid a second lost summer but COVID-19 cases have risen in continental Europe.

Johnson said a planned reopening of the economy could take place next week, with the opening of all shops, gyms, hairdressers and outdoor hospitality areas in England.

VACCINE PASSPORTS

With the vaccine program rolling out rapidly across Britain and infection numbers falling, Johnson said England could proceed to Stage 2 of his roadmap out of lockdown from April 12.

“On Monday the 12th, I will be going to the pub myself – and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips,” Johnson said.

Britain said people should continue to work from home where they can and minimize domestic travel.

Johnson also confirmed that the government was looking at a COVID-19 status certification system, or vaccine passport, to help reopen larger events and to travel.

“I want to stress that there are complicated, ethical, and practical issues… raised by the idea of COVID status certification… using vaccination alone,” Johnson said.

“You’ve got to be very careful in how you handle this and … don’t start a system that’s discriminatory.”

People will not need vaccine certification for pubs, hairdressers and shops, Johnson said.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Timothy Heritage)

Eerily silent Paris CDG marks Easter without air travel rush

By Tim Hepher and Christian Hartmann

PARIS (Reuters) – Easter at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport typically starts two weeks early as extra staff are trained to cope with one of the busiest weekends of the year. On Friday, an eerie calm pervaded Europe’s largest airport as France slides back into lockdown.

Instead of crowded check-ins and relentless take-offs and landings, rows of unused trolleys and redundant queuing barriers greeted visitors to one of the world’s busiest transport hubs.

“It’s nothing like what you would normally see,” said Amor, who has worked at the airport for 20 years, organizing check-in zones and passenger assistance for an airport sub-contractor.

“The airport would be full of people going to Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt for the spring holidays. We handled a Tunisia flight yesterday and there were 80 people,” he said. Air France typically serves Tunis with 150-seat jets.

Charles de Gaulle on Thursday handled 18.1% of the number of passengers seen on the same day in 2019, Aeroports de Paris said.

Adjusting for different dates for Easter, throughput on the few open concourses is closer to 20-25% of a usual Easter.

The enforced lull is more striking given that the airport’s 11 terminals have been condensed into two during the pandemic, though some were already closed for maintenance.

Terminal 2E, usually used by Air France and partners for U.S. flights, is handling all long-range traffic, throwing competing carriers from across the globe into a shared space.

A dedicated check-in zone for business class – worst hit by the coronavirus travel crisis – has been suspended and a large COVID-19 testing area takes up one end of the vast hall.

Europe’s border-free Schengen area is served opposite at 2F.

JOBS AT RISK

Charles de Gaulle airport, built in wheat fields northeast of Paris, has seen explosive growth since the first jumbo touched down from New York in 1974.

Terminal 2 opened in 1982 as a hub for Air France, with its undulating modular design shortening the time from gate to curb.

The original 2B was closed for repairs before the crisis but much of the rest of the Terminal 2 complex has been transformed from a snarl of traffic jams to a bowl of deserted concrete.

The global travel slump has cast a shadow over the local economy where 100,000 people work at Charles de Gaulle, a major employer in the capital’s depressed northern suburbs.

Airport staff say less than half of those people are actively working this Easter, with the rest on furlough or finding that the usual temporary jobs have not materialized.

Up to 30,000 jobs could disappear for good, the deputy head of Paris CDG Alliance, which groups the airport’s largest employers and regional government agencies, told Le Monde newspaper.

That contrasts with crowded scenes observed this week in China and the United States, two fast-recovering markets.

On Thursday, the U.S. screened 1.56 million air travelers, 65% of the comparable 2019 level, official data showed.

In Europe, progress in pushing back a third wave of coronavirus infections has been widely described as patchy. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron ordered France into its third national lockdown.

With Easter already a wash-out, the airline industry is fretting over bookings for summer. Experts say a second lost summer would threaten more bankruptcies..

The drop in passenger numbers means fewer staff from security to cleaners and wheel-chair attendants. Check-in for one Gulf airline now uses 4 agents per flight rather than 7.

Inconsistent border rules for dealing with the pandemic further complicate the planning.

“For Denmark and Sweden we have to have 5-6 agents to check the paperwork rather than the normal two,” one employee said.

On the airport’s most southerly runway, the morning wave of long-haul jets continued to arrive on Friday from as far away as Buenos Aires, Taipei or Douala. But industry statistics show such international flights are much emptier than usual.

International travel is expected to lag short-haul trips in any eventual recovery, hobbled by a video-conferencing craze.

“Zoom is doing well,” said an airline employee who specializes in looking after premium customers.

Still, some export-dependent companies are beginning to test the water, fearing Russian, Chinese or U.S. competition.

“We have to start moving again and keep doing business,” said Marc Vacher, a production executive at French energy services company Idex, arriving early for a flight to Ukraine.

“You can’t go without face-to-face contact with customers; otherwise, it is harder to catch up later,” he added.

(Additional reporting by Laurence Frost, Tracy Rucinski, David Shepardson; editing by Barbara Lewis)

Philippines sees 10,000 new COVID-19 cases as tight curbs return to capital

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines passed the 10,000 mark for new daily coronavirus infections for the first time on Monday and put its capital region back on one of its toughest levels of lockdown, to try to tackle a spike in cases that is testing its healthcare capacity.

Manila and surrounding provinces were put back under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the highest tier in its containment protocols, for the first time since May 2020 to try to quell the surge in cases, despite inroads late last year towards controlling its epidemic.

The country recorded 10,016 new infections on Monday, bringing the overall tally to 731,894, with deaths at 13,186, one of the highest caseloads in Asia.

Health experts say the surge in infections underscores the need to expedite a national vaccination drive, with only 656,331 healthcare workers so far given their first of two shots. The government aims to inoculate 70 million people this year.

It has also struggled to secure vaccine supplies, with an inventory of 2.525 million doses, mostly of Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine, one million of which arrived on Monday.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday allowed the private sector to import vaccines to boost supply and help reopen the economy.

“Whatever the cost, whatever the volume they want to bring in, it’s fine with me,” Duterte said in a national address.

Prior to Duterte’s approval, businesses go through the government for supply deals. Previously, half of the purchased doses were required to be given to the government.

Health authorities blame the spike on poor public compliance with prevention measures and the presence of new and more transmissible coronavirus variants in the capital region, which accounts for about a third of economic activity.

“This surge is really challenging while ECQ is painful, particularly for the economic sector,” said Benjamin Co, an infectious disease expert with three Manila hospitals.

The Philippines was the first country in Asia to go under a nationwide lockdown and broad restrictions and movement curbs saw its economy slump 9.5% last year, its worst economic contraction on record.

Hospitals’ intensive care and isolation bed capacity in the capital region have reached critical levels or above 70% usage, government data showed.

“I can give you beds, I can give you rooms. The problem is I cannot give you additional manpower capacity, like nurses and doctors to take care of you,” Co added.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Ed Davies and Marguerita Choy)